Jo Reid, Postgraduate student, MSc Film, Exhibition and Curation, University of Edinburgh
I was absolutely delighted to be invited to the Community Archives conference run by the Scottish Council on Archives on Wednesday. Not only was there a delicious selection of doughnuts and cakes, but practical and vital talks about caring for and using film archives. By offering a mixture of interesting case studies and genuinely helpful advice for preserving, digitising, and maintaining film collections, the Scottish Council on Archives provided a productive and collaborative space for community archives.
What struck me most throughout the conference was the urgency with which certain materials needed to be digitised. Videos were often highlighted as top priorities owing to the near obsolescence of the equipment used to view them and the lack of people available to repair or fix them. Furthermore, processes like digitisation are not the end of a process, but the beginning. Digital files, software and hardware all pose their own preservation challenges. Files require sever storage, and software will become obsolete within the next ten years. Even something as fundamental as digitisation as a preservation strategy requires constant monitoring and updating.
Community archives particularly are in a precarious position due to lack of specialist skills and knowledge, funds, space, and resources, so being able to work with other archives to identify and preserve materials is vital. Archives cannot work in isolation, and it is only through collaboration, communication and the sharing of knowledge and skills that Scottish film collections can be protected for future generations.
Another aspect highlighted repeatedly through discussion and case studies was how the archive needs to be visible and used. Maya Darrell Hewins’ excellent talk about the Shetland film archive demonstrated how interaction between the community and the archive at every aspect– from access to collection to preservation – ensured that they received enthusiastic and vocal support from the community it served. From encouraging engagement on social media to licensing out footage to local artists, the Shetland Film Archive was actively visible and therefore benefited from financial and social support.
Similarly, projects such as Singer Stories and Gairloch Heritage Museum highlighted the benefits of using local people to help create and utilise the archives, whether it be using local voices to read out material within the collection or the use local volunteers to collect oral history. Again, and again, the conference emphasised that archives have more to gain by including the community they serve in every aspect of the archive than excluding them.
The Community Archives conference offered valuable insight into the challenges and rewards of community film archives. Although challenging, understaffed and under-resourced, film archives are an important part of any community. As the conference showed, by ensuring their survival through community outreach and engagement, digitisation, and collaboration, community film archives can thrive as custodians of Scotland’s’ film heritage.
Caring for Community Archives Day
Yvette Yu, Postgraduate student, MSc Film, Exhibition and Curation, University of Edinburgh
Caring for Community Archives provided important information on the means of archiving materials for community organisations. More than twenty participants from different organisations were in the conference and provided valuable questions for the eleven professional speakers. The talks were inspiring and interesting, as was the tour in the moving image archive and the discussions afterwards. I was really intrigued by this area and it made me aware of a desire to gain greater knowledge and experience in archive related areas.
The first session of Caring for Community Archives conference offered an insightful introduction to different sound and image archive items. Aimed at community archives, most of the participants here were from small organisations (some of them consist of just three or four individuals) who might not have had access to training with all types of archival items before. As a Film Curation and Exhibition student, I was concerned that I might not be able to understand anything before attending the conference; this first session made the topics of the rest of the day a lot less abstract.
The first session introduced different sound recording items (e.g. cassettes, wax cylinders) and moving image recording items. Being able to see them physically, and touch and smell them (especially the vinegar syndrome affected film) made it more vivid and memorable. My immediate reaction to these objects was surprise – surprise at how fast the development of technology is. The word ‘archive’ gives an impression of something from a long time ago, and many of the items did seem vintage; but what we are producing now is also in need of archiving. After the introduction, participants discussed different cases of deterioration, and principles in deciding on the priority of preservation. Much valuable advice was given in terms of the archiving of these items – how to catalogue, what kind of freezer to keep the films in, who to reach to if certain technologies are needed, etc.
This material aspect of films is something that we often forget when thinking about moving image – yet it is the most important aspect of a film. This makes me think of Walter Benjamin’s concept of aura. It is hard to locate moving image works especially in the current digital era because of the lack of physicality. However, the physicality still exists – you can digitise the archive film, but something of the quality will be different; the reproduction will be showing traces of the existence of the original physical film (e.g. scratches on the film or missing sound because of the bending of the edge). Even digital files, as Jeni Park, project manager from NLS explained, cannot last forever and different kinds of digital files have different durability. Taking care of archive materials is not a one-off work; this is what emphasises the materiality of sound and moving images to me. This might not be where the aura of these works is located, but it definitely shows the vulnerability and materiality of these productions.
The preservation and archiving of sound is something very new and interesting to me. It is not my speciality, but the talks really broadened my horizon. Indeed, sound is something in such a need to preserve and we don’t really realise it. We can recreate Socrates’ trial with records of the building, the clothing they were wearing, perhaps not accurately but at least we have some basis. But we don’t know how they spoke. We don’t know what their music used to sound like either. When Dr Karen Buchanan from Gairloch Museum introduced her project of having the locals read out letters from the 1950s, the thought immediately came into my mind: do they still sound the same as when it was the 1950s? People might still be alive, but their ways of speaking will change as long as they are in touch with this world that is constantly shaped by new developments.
Several other case studies were given in the conference, and some more practical information on copyright and digitisation also provided. These provided useful guidance for people who care about archive but may have lacked the means to access proper training. The talks were interesting and inspiring, and certainly gave me a lot more insights into how institutions operate. This has helped me to understand more about how institutions work. In terms of our own archive film project it has given me new insight into the position of the archives (especially in terms of licensing).
Overall, the conference was full of valuable information for every participant to reflect on; personally, I found it a successful day which continued to inspire my interests in archiving and preservation.
Jo Reid and Yvette Yu are both current post-graduate students on the MSc Film, Exhibition and Curation programme at University of Edinburgh. Jo is the recipient of this year’s Regional Screen Scotland Scholarship and has grown up and been educated within Scotland, with an Honours degree in Film and Television from University of Glasgow. Jo has a particular interest in community cinema. Yvette is originally from Beijing and went onto Masters study after studying History of Art as an undergraduate at University of Edinburgh. Yvette has previously worked as a volunteer with the National Libraries of Scotland on a photography conservation project.
The MSc Film, Exhibition and Curation programme attracts an international cohort of students keen to bring often neglected forms of film to wider audiences. This year the group are undertaking an ambitious archive project inspired by their visit to the Film Focus Festival in Orkney; their research has involved working closely with the Orkney Library and Archive.
This project will result in a series of curated events showcasing archive film and accompanied by live music. Weaving a rich collage of archive footage of the landscape, traditions and rhythms of the Orkney islands this exploration of island life will present a celebration of Orcadian culture and heritage. The archive films in use are all from the collection of the Moving Image Archive of National Library of Scotland, and the live music will be performed by Sound Design Masters students from the University of Edinburgh.
The first of these events takes place on the 26th of March at Film House in Edinburgh and tickets are now available. More information can be found on:
Facebook page: SoundfromtheEdge
Contact the team: Soundfromtheedge@gmail.com